The first thing to keep in mind is that Rudy Vallee was not enthusiastic about having a ventriloquist act on his program. On the August 6, 1936, episode of The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour, he stated on the air “…ventriloquism hardly makes good radio.”
That night was the radio debut of noted comic and ventriloquist Frank Gaby (according to our sources, it was Gaby’s only credited radio appearance). Not surprisingly, he flopped. Gaby had been a successful vaudevillian, and to be fair, when he appeared on Fleischmann’s he was forced to use Rudy as his dummy because everyone knew that ventriloquism would not work on radio.
Ventriloquism comes from the Latin root meaning “belly noises”. It is a visual trick where the artist “throws” his voice so that it appears that his dummy or doll is talking. There is a pretty obvious disconnect between radio and visual tricks, so Vallee’s less than enthusiastic attitude towards ventriloquists is understandable.
Johan and Nilla Bergren’s boy, Edgar, learned ventriloquism from a pamphlet at the age of 11. A few years later, after developing his skill, Edgar hired Chicago woodcarver Theodore Mack to fashion the head of his life-long side-kick (Edgar made the body himself). The likeness was based on a precocious Irish newsboy. Bergren entered Northwestern University, performing with Charlie McCarthy to pay the bills. Soon he was doing Vaudeville full time and changed his name to the easier to pronounce Edgar Bergen.
The Vaudeville circuit eventually drew Edgar and Charlie to New York. “America’s Premier Party-giver”, Elsa Maxwell, saw the act at a party for Noel Coward and helped Bergen to land a gig at the Rainbow Room. While rubbing shoulders with the well-to-do, Charlie adopted his trademark top hat, tuxedo and “Esky” monocle (for the Esquire magazine’s cartoon mascot). One of the “swanks” who saw the act at the Rainbow was Julian Field, an executive at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. Part of Field’s duties was to find talent for the firm’s client’s radio shows, The Royal Gelatin Hour in particular.
Given Rudy Vallee’s less than enthusiastic attitude about ventriloquists, it was surprising the Edgar and Charlie made it on the show at all, let alone into what was essentially the headline spot. Guest wise, it was a pretty slow night for Rudy.
The program featured a scripted and long-winded interview with Elsa Maxwell, mostly about how wonderful it was to be Elsa Maxwell. Cornelia Otis Skinner gave a humorous monologue about Christmas, Sleepy Hall introduced the electric banjo, and there was a dramatic sketch by Shirley Booth and Douglas Thomas best described as “forgettable”.
Edgar was introduced right after the mid-show commercial break, traditionally the head-line slot. Charlie got his first big laugh on the radio when Edgar asked why he was so nattily dressed. “Well, its a long story… and a dirty one!”
The listening audience was both shocked and delighted! Although very tame by today’s standards, this was a bit ribald for 1936. However, Charlie could get away with it because he was a young boy. A boy made of wood at that! Later there is an exchange where Charlie claims “I never have more than, ah, four or five scotch and sodas….” “Goodness, four or five scotch and sodas would make you awfully drunk!” “Yeah, well, it helps!”
The shock of such adult musings with a little-boy voice was a hit with audiences and sponsors. Standard Brands fell over themselves to sign Bergen as the show’s featured comedians. When that 13 show contract was up they offered man and dummy their own Sunday night show, The Chase and Sanborn Hour.
Charlie went on to become one of the most revered personalities on radio. Naturally there was a flood of Charlie McCarthy merchandise, from dolls to boardgames to teaspoons. He was no stranger to scandal; his exchange with Mae West was considered so racy that the sex symbol was banned from NBC until 1950.
Although he would create other dummies for his act, Charlie remained the one audiences wanted to see when Edgar Bergen performed. Bergen appeared on television both with and without his wooden side-kick. He played Grandpa Walton in The Homecoming and appeared with his daughter Candice on You Bet Your Life (Candice claimed to be jealous of Charlie, he had a bigger bedroom!)
Charlie remained a precocious little boy until Bergen’s death in 1978. He is now on display as an American icon in the Smithsonian Institution.